Sunday Faux Duck o’ the Week

December 20, 2020 • 8:00 am

Once again biologist and bird maven John Avise presents us with a Faux Duck of the Week, and your job is to guess the species. After perusing the photos, make your guess and then click “continue reading” to see the ID, some Fun Faux Dux Fax, and a range map. Click on photos to enlarge them.

This species, though it won’t help you guess, is one of John’s favorites. Many of you will be able to recognize it! John’s captions, as well as his facts below the fold, are indented.

Adult in breeding condition:

Another breeding adult:

Adult in non-breeding plumage:

Dorsal view:

Young bird:

Using one foot like a rudder:

Head-on view:

Showing legs far back on body:

Agitating the water to attract fish:

Click “continue reading” to see the species, some info about the species, and a range map.

ID: Common Loon (Gavia immer)

Another group of birds that beginning birders might mistake for ducks are loons (in the taxonomic family Gaviidae). Loons are large waterbirds that excel at surface-diving to catch fish with their dagger-like bills.  Their legs are positioned far back on the body for powerful propulsion using their webbed feet.  But this also means that loons must run or “taxi” across the surface of the water before they can become airborne to take full flight.  Loons nest on the shores of freshwater lakes at high latitudes but then migrate south to winter in open waters mostly along seacoasts. The breeding (or alternate) plumages of loons are brighter and quite different from the duller non-breeding (or basic) plumages.

This species is a common summer resident on the beautiful lakes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I too summered throughout my childhood years. Both sexes have a bold black-and-white breeding plumage that includes a lovely white collar or “necklace” that contrasts with the bird’s black head and neck. This species produces a haunting yodel-like song or wail that I will forever associate with my beloved Michigan northwoods.  Immature birds and adults in their non-breeding plumage are a duller brown and are best identified by their heavy-bodied size and shape, together with their robust straight bill. If I ever reincarnate as another animal (as several Indian religions believe we do), I would like to come back as a loon, because I would then excel at both flying and diving, and I would migrate between beautiful northern lakes and exciting saltwater coastlines.  My photos of breeding birds were taken in Michigan; the rest were taken in Southern California.

You can hear some loon calls on this page (scroll down to “calls”).

A range map from the Cornell bird site:


13 thoughts on “Sunday Faux Duck o’ the Week

  1. Loons and their calls symbolize the northwoods for many of us.

    When I was little, fishing on a northern Wisconsin lake, I saw a loon defend its nest from a too-close seagull. The loon lunged and stabbed the seagull! Killing it instantly. I wanted to see the loon more closely, so I rowed to the seagull carcass and used it as a giant loon lure, tying it to a fishing line and trying to cast it towards the loon.

    Of course this didn’t work at all.

  2. Thank you for the informative and beautiful post. I’m wasn’t familiar with their calls. Some of the calls on the Cornell lab website sound like a scary movie.

    1. It was certainly easy, but I did not know that they migrated so far south along the coasts in the winter. I’d love to see one in the Gulf of Mexico!

  3. Appreciate the pointing out photos of the far back legs and what it means in practical terms. And a link to their distinctive calls. So now I know for sure I have never seen a loon in person, but now I might recognize one if I ever do.

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